Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 25, 2015
If you listen to the accents spoken by the people in this congregation, you get the sense that very few of us are from Houston. We are a church of nomads. I hear accents from Cuba, Michigan, Puerto Rico, the UK, Louisiana, and perhaps most foreign of all, New Jersey.
Our daughter, Lydia, is different. She’s a seventh generation Texan. That line does not come through me. I was born in Los Angeles. But Maggie’s side are dyed in the wool Texans. Maggie’s maiden name is “Chisholm,” like the famous cattle driving trail. Part of Maggie’s family worked on the original Big-Tex for the Texas State Fair. Maggie’s grandfather was a geologist who worked out in the Permian Basin. Maggie and I met at the University of Texas. Maggie’s family is all Texas, and you can decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.
Andrew and his brother Simon Peter, James and John, the sons of Zebedee – they are dyed in the wool Galileans. They are fishermen. As most likely were their fathers, and their fathers, and their fathers. In the ancient world, these four men were born as Galilean fishermen, were destined to be Galilean fishermen for their whole lives, and then die as Galilean fishermen. That probably wasn’t too bad of a thing. It was the family business. They had hired men working for them. Though it’s not the most glamorous job, Peter, Andrew, James, and John would make a decent living and lead relatively safe, comfortable lives.
Until Jesus shows up.
When Jesus shows up, things quickly become a lot more dangerous. We want to think that Christianity is this joyful, easy-going life of happiness. That, we’re blessed. Like, when Jesus shows up everything will be kittens and butterflies. But it’s not. Jesus comes proclaiming the Kingdom of God. And that’s a dangerous message. Think about how this passage is introduced. The first line is, “Now after John was arrested.” That’s John the Baptist. Who had also been proclaiming the Kingdom of God. That got him put in jail. Everything is relatively safe and comfortable, until Jesus shows up.
These four fishermen are starting a new life. A dangerous life. Remember what’s going on at the time. The Jews are living under the heavy boot of the Roman Empire. There is talk of rebellion and insurrection. Some Jews call themselves, “The Knifemen,” because they go around stabbing Romans, claiming it was for the Kingdom of God. They are, what the Romans would have called, terrorists. These were dangerous times. And Jesus had a dangerous message. That the Kingdom of God had come near. That it was time to get ready for the new king. He was calling on men and women to turn away from this violence and to truly live in the Kingdom of God. He called these four fishermen into a dangerous life.
All was comfortable for Peter, Andrew, James, and John until Jesus shows up. Then the danger becomes all too real. Like the Lord Jesus, they all die for the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist is beheaded. Peter is crucified upside down. Andrew is crucified on a cross shaped like an “X.” James is killed by a sword. Jesus stands on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and says to these four fishermen, “follow me.” Jesus may as well have said, “Come and die with me.” “Come and die with me.”
Somewhere along the line in the past two thousand years, this message has been tamed and domesticated. Jesus saying, “Come and die with me” has become something more like, “it would be great if you showed up at Christmas and Easter. But no pressure.” And then, when we do show up to church, all we hear is how great it is to be a Christian because we are just so blessed. Were Peter, Andrew, John, and James blessed even though they all died miserable deaths? Of course, so it looks like we need to change our definition of “blessing.”
We have taken “blessed” to mean having a new car, a big house, a great paying job, and some semblance of health. Things that Peter, Andrew, James, and John would never have considered as they were being crucified and killed for Jesus. “Blessed” does not mean material things that make our lives easier. Blessed actually means “made holy,” “consecrated,” “set apart for God.” Discipleship is sacrificing our life, our greed, our selfishness for the Lord Jesus. That way our life is a blessing, our life is set apart for God. Then we are blessed.
And we would not think twice if our country asked us to die for it. Indeed, many of us in this church have risked their lives for our country. But we find it hard to imagine the Church and Christianity asking us to do the same. If we can’t imagine the Church asking us to die for Jesus, then the Church is no different from the PTA, the Rotary, or the Football Boosters Club. And the Church is different because we proclaim the Kingdom of God. The same proclamation that got John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Andrew, and James killed. We are not just some volunteer organization. We are the people called by Jesus to come and die with him. (Language from this paragraph paraphrased from different writings and talks given by Stanley Hauerwas).
So here is what has happened. We have been lulled into this false sense of discipleship. We believe that discipleship is the same as volunteering for the Church. And it’s been that way for generations. The Church has become a volunteer organization like Lydia is a Texan. The Church is now a multi-generational, dyed in the wool, volunteer organization. The Church is like these four fishermen. For generations and generations, we have been modest, delightful church-goers, with all of the charm and none of the danger. But I firmly believe that Jesus has come again, and he is calling us into a dangerous life. Jesus is calling us to drop our nets of the old ways of being the Church so that we can become dangerous, whole-hearted disciples. When it all shakes out, how many articles I wrote for a parish newsletter will not matter. How many donuts we ate on Sunday morning will not matter. What will matter is how we raised our children to be disciples. What will matter is that we were formed by consistent, weekly worship, so that we became the Body of Christ. What will matter is that we served the poor and proclaimed the Kingdom of God. And that might just mean going with Jesus to die with him.
We must set our priorities straight. Jesus challenges us to make worship a priority, when it would be easy to favor sports or sleeping in. Jesus challenges us to make giving a priority, even when that new model car with the sunroof looks really enticing. Jesus calls us to die to our old selves. To die to volunteerism and rise again to discipleship. What’s at stake, is the very soul of the Church.
Not this all sounds awfully grim, but you know me, I always look for the silver-lining. A few weeks ago, Bishop Doyle asked a Town Hall meeting this question. He asked, “What will the world say about the Episcopal Church in fifty years?” And someone responded: “We’ll be like dinosaurs, only more charming.”
Jesus stands on the shore, and calls us to go and die with him. To be disciples, not dinosaurs. During this 2015 – Year of Commitment, we will be training ourselves for just that. Worship more than you don’t. Give so that it affects you. Serve at least once a month. Pray everyday. In other words, die to our old selves and our old lives, so that Jesus can reform us into disciples.
Finally, let me say this. And please, please hear what I am about to say. I do not preach this sermon to make you feel bad about yourself. I do not want you to feel guilty about who you are, and what you do or don’t do. I only want you to have blessed and joyous lives. From what I’ve learned in my short life, when I serve the Kingdom of Self, I’m never truly happy, because I can’t ever get enough. But when I serve the Kingdom of God, when I aim to be a disciple, that’s when I’m brimming with joy and blessing. The Kingdom of God has come near. It is a blessing. It is joyous. But it does require one thing. Jesus stands on the shore of our lives and says, “Come and die with me.”